July 20 2015
A torch bearer for social and political causes as much as a master of his craft and widely recognised in India as being a very individual voice, he has been able to traverse the confines of Bollywood style filmmaking…
By Chitra Mogul
IT IS FILMMAKER and journalist Khalid Mohamed’s deeply felt tribute to his mentor.
Now 80, Shyam Benegal is one of India’s best known directors, but he has never made a ‘Bollywood’ film in the traditional sense.
Instead his work, spanning more than 40 years deals with the social issues of the day and he has carved a middle path that often reflects a deep meditation on Indian society, while still being accessible and entertaining and possessing a popular appeal. This trait has led some to term his work as ‘parallel’ cinema as opposed to Bollywood’s usual tamasha.
This well-paced documentary about his life and career never flags for a moment, splicing as it does interviews with Benegal and many famous and iconic ‘names’ in Indian cinema such as Shabana Azmi, Anil Kapoor, Karishma Kapoor, Girish Karnad, Javed Akhtar, AR Rahman and many more, with riveting clips from his films and classic archival photographs.
The documentary offers up an unvarnished look at the filmmaker through the eyes of those who have worked with him over the years with an especially large role reserved for well-known actor Shabana Azmi and other heroines from his films. Their candid opinions give us interesting insights into Benegal as a filmmaker, and as a human being. What emerges is a picture of a filmmaker who is the master of his medium and someone who wouldn’t betray his own personal vision and integrity for commercial gain.
Benegal preferred to use actors who were graduates of film schools and one of his first recruits was Azmi who had just finished at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.
Shabana recalls how after her meeting with Benegal she told her mother that “some fraud director has told me he has a role for me in two films”. As it happened, eighteen days later she was, indeed, on the sets of “Ankur” (1974). She went on to win a National Award for her debut in the film and also starred in his next film “Nishant” (1975).
Azmi feels that Benegal’s ability to imbue his films with a certain light-heartedness, while also depicting vital social issues contributed to their success with Indian audiences – despite not fitting into the mould of mainstream cinema.
His other actors from FTII were Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and cinematographer Govind Nihalani. Azmi agreed that there had been rivalry between herself and the late Patil. She regretted some of her comments regarding her rival in the press dismissing them as ‘stupid’. Shah actually provides the voiceover for this documentary.
Benegal turned the spotlight on political and social issues which may never have otherwise seen the light of day. His first two films “Ankur” and “Nishant” depict the oppression of women in society. His later films like “Manthan” (milkmen), “Susman” (hand loom weavers), “Hari-bahri” (women’s right of reproduction) followed this trend by highlighting social ills.
Azmi reflects that perhaps his later films depart from the artistry of his earlier films like “Ankur” and “Nishant” to adopt a more documentary style approach which she felt wasn’t for the best.
Karishma Kapoor recalls filming “Zubeidaa” (2001) based on the life of Khalid Mohamed’s mother who was an actress.
The film unit travelled by train during the shoot and Benegal had a coupe at the end of the train to himself. He would invite someone from the cast and crew to dine with him and this was usually a much coveted privilege. She also mused over how she developed proprietorial feelings over Benegal during the shoot as had many of the others, which offers us a clue as to Benegal’s charisma.
Benegal talks about his early childhood spent in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh. He was an avid watcher of Hollywood and Soviet films and was said to have made his first film at the age of 12. He later moved to Mumbai where he honed his filmmaking skills working at the advertising agency Lintas. He made over 1000 ad and corporate films as well as several documentary films.
Former Hindustan Times Café editor Khalid Mohamed, began his career in films by writing the script for Benegal’s film “Mammo” (1995). He followed it up with the screenplay for “Sardari Begum”(1996) and “Zubeidaa” (2001).
The documentary on Benegal has been two years in the making but it is worth the wait and may well be the definitive documentary on the filmmaker. Khalid Mohamed has served up a fitting tribute to his former mentor.
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
‘The Master: Shyam Benegal’ screened at the BFI Southbank on Friday, July 17 as part of the London Indian Film Festival 2015 (July 16-26).
For the remaining programme, please see http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/programme.htm